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Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Updated: July 28, 12:38 PM ET
If Danica wins, drivers will follow

By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

The importance of Danica Patrick's defection from Rahal Letterman to Andretti Green can't be exaggerated. If handled properly, if marketed properly, in 2007 Danica will restore IndyCar and open-wheel racing to a place of prominence.

Man's national pastime isn't baseball or professional football. It's chasing skirt. And Danica's move to the winningest team in the history of the IndyCar Series ensures that IRL drivers will get a chance to satisfy their primal desire -- because now they'll be chasing her.

Fans will follow. And so will a few of the bored NASCAR drivers who grew up dreaming about circling Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a four-wheel spaceship.

Yeah, I know, you've heard this for two years from those of us who prefer open-wheel to stock car. We've been predicting and praying that Danica Mania will morph into Danica Dominance and save the IRL. Meanwhile, our savior can't pull off a podium finish let alone find the winner's circle.

Danica grateful to the Rahal Letterman team.

That will change in 2007. I offer A.J. Allmendinger's 2006 season as proof. Allmendinger, the lone American on the Champ Car circuit, has gone from RuSport bust to third in the Champ Car standings after landing a ride with Gerry Forsythe.

Carl Russo, the owner of RuSport, fired Allmendinger four races into the current season. Allmendinger's crime? Like Patrick, he demonstrated great early promise, winning the Champ Car 2004 rookie of the year, but he couldn't locate the winner's circle in '04, '05 or a month into the '06 season.

Unlike Patrick this year, RuSport consistently put Allmendinger in one of the league's fastest cars. He led races, won poles, qualified up front, but would find misfortune whenever the flag started thinking about turning checkered.

The move to Forsythe Racing changed Allmendinger's luck, fortune and finishes. Immediately after being dumped by RuSport, Allmendinger won races at Portland, Cleveland and Toronto and recorded a podium finish at Edmonton.

How ya like me now?

With six races left, he's five points behind RuSport's Justin Wilson and 28 points behind points leader Sebastien Bourdais.

On the sponsor-rich NASCAR circuit, where most of the teams are well-funded and can appropriately support two or three drivers, an experienced, talented racer can win by having better motion in the ocean. In American open-wheel racing, a driver needs the biggest and best equipment for a race to climax in victory.

Danica will have that next season. Tony Kanaan's victory in Milwaukee last weekend made Andretti Green IndyCar's winningest team. AGR won the IndyCar points race in 2004 and 2005.

I wanted Danica to jump to Penske or Ganassi because Roger Penske wrote the book on winning at Indy and because I wanted her to have a bitter rivalry with 19-year-old Marco Andretti.

But as long as she's running with the leaders most weeks, the IndyCar Series will be fine. Actually, the league should be better than that, especially if she or Marco wins at Indy next year. A Patrick victory at Indy in '07 would hasten the IndyCar-Champ Car merger that is expected to happen within the next three years.

Again, guys like to chase skirt.

There's no way Champ Car drivers and owners sit over in their easy-to-ignore league while the whole country goes bonkers over the drop-dead-gorgeous brunette who won the greatest spectacle in racing. If Danica wins at Indy, there's too much money to be made chasing her for the open-wheel feud to continue.

And chasing skirt might be more exciting than chasing Cup for some NASCAR drivers.

Given the current pay and endorsement-money disparity between NASCAR and IndyCar, it makes perfect sense for drivers such as Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, who made their bones racing USAC sprint and midget cars, to drive 38 races for the France family (who built NASCAR into a powerhouse sport and business).

How would that change if Danica Dominance and open-wheel unification made the 14-race IndyCar Series more profitable (or as profitable) on a per-race basis as NASCAR? Would earning $2 million for 14 races be better than $6 million for 38?

Maybe not, but it would certainly give NASCAR drivers some flexibility and leverage in dealing with the France dictatorship. And no matter how many times NASCAR holds the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- the event that turned the Southern series into a true powerhouse -- the race will never hold the prestige and magic of racing at Indy on the last weekend in May.

Stewart and Kahne will always want to win the Indy 500. That's still the ultimate for an American-born driver. And the average, Neanderthal American man won't let a woman own IMS without joining the fight.

Even fat, sloppy and happy NASCAR drivers such as Stewart could be dieting and trying to squeeze into an IndyCar by 2008.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. He can be reached by e-mail at ballstate68@aol.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.